This post appeared on April 27th, 2009 as a part of the Career Corner Advice Series

American Public Media’s program Marketplace sent reporter Lisa Napoli to our Los Angeles Nonprofit Career Fair a few weeks ago and produced a story called Working for free profits the soul.

Here is a bit of the transcript that I wanted to expand a bit:

Lisa Napoli: Idealist’s Steven Joiner says experienced professionals are accepting that big-buck jobs are drying up. Others, he says, simply want to make a career out of social service work. He says working for free can be a good way in:

Steven Joiner: So I’ll tell people, you know, never volunteer just to try to get a job, but if you’re volunteering to be involved in the nonprofit sector, never volunteer without having it be some sort of professional development step.

Lisa Napoli: With so many professionals looking for jobs, even being strategic in your volunteer work can be a challenge. Nonprofits everywhere say they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who are raising their hands to work for free.

What exactly does this mean? Am I implying that you should only volunteer for professional gain? Yes and no.

Let me give you three quick examples:

1) If you are looking to build a skill set that you know you will need to pursue your ideal nonprofit career (the Career Tracks exercise is useful for figuring that out) like, say, event planning and fundraising, find an organization that resonates with you and ask them if you can help research funding opportunities for them or see if you can take a meaningful role (like coordinate the volunteers) for their annual fundraiser. Know what skill you needed to develop, what needs an organization has, and paint a clear picture for them of where your interests intersect.

2) If you are volunteering with an organization, ask the staff for recommendations on who to approach for informational interviews. This implies that you know how to articulate your personal mission statement so you can proactively communicate what you are looking for. We had an intern at Idealist last year who was interested in working for an arts organization. By the time she was done working with us, she’d talked to everyone we as a staff knew in Portland, OR connected to the arts (and that is quite a feat!).

3) Now, the no part of the answer to “should you volunteer only for professional gain” question is simply this: if there is an organization or a mission that means a lot to you, get out there and help in any way you can. I am personally passionate about fighting blood cancers so I try and do a fundraising triathlon every few years with Team in Training to honor the memory of my father, raise some money, and stay in shape. Is that professional development? Kind of…but that is not my primary goal. See, I don’t want to work for Team in Training or have a career in cancer research. That’s not the point. But, I always meet a lot of cool people and that always helps to build my network. Voila! Professional development.

The bottom line here is that there can be a direct correlation between volunteering and professional development. So, as the last part of that Marketplace quote says, you need to be strategic…even as a volunteer. There are a lot of people willing to “work for free,” so stand out by being intentional.

Steven Joiner, Director of the Career Transitions Program and author of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers, talked about intentional volunteering in this January “Career Corner” blog and clearly can’t seem to say enough about the subject!

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